Y Gracias por tu interés en el español.
First of all, congratulations on your decision to master Spanish! Before you attain your dream of speaking Spanish like a Jedi master (though hopefully better than Yoda’s reversed grammar!), let me ask you: do any of these sound familiar to you?
- I studied Spanish, but I didn’t actually learn much.
- I went to a language school. I worked my hardest to learn and memorize words, but I just can’t speak decent Spanish.
- Sometimes I try to speak Spanish, but people just speak English to me as soon as they hear me speak.
- There are sounds that are too hard for me to learn.
- I’ve asked someone to teach me, but they are not patient with me.
These are just a few of the common complaints I hear far too often from many students.
If you have set the bar high with a specific deadline in the near future, then you should definitely avoid just stopping there. If you haven’t learned any Spanish before, that’s even better for you because you will start fresh with a brand new type of experience that you simply can’t learn at an institute with a very strict syllabus.
Now, here’s the truth you must face if you want to achieve fluency in record time. Fluency in a very short time (let’s say five months) is very possible even if you don’t speak any foreign languages. However, if you want to ensure that you reach a high level of conversational fluency, here are six essential elements that must be in place and working in harmony in order for you to reach your goal:
Element #1: You must be highly motivated.
Element #2: You must proactively seek opportunities to practice Spanish outside of scheduled sessions or informal conversations that you may have with native speakers. This sounds simple, but in practice, this is what a “Spanish diet” would eventually look like in your everyday life:
- Searching Google for pictures, words, phrases, news, and blog posts in Spanish instead of your unconscious habit of doing it English. Regarding the last one, reading blogs in English is great and you learn a lot, but right now you are working on learning to speak Spanish fast and in only a few sessions.
- Listening to a lot of music, recordings, radio shows, podcasts, and speeches in Spanish.
- Watching more YouTube and other videos in Spanish.
- Writing your shopping list in Spanish.
- Ordering pizza or talking to agents at call centers in Spanish, if that service is available.
- Touching base with your existing network of Spanish speaking contacts (from facebook, whatsapp, email, etc.) and writing to them in Spanish.
- Watching more Spanish movies with Spanish subtitles, then moving up to watching them with no subtitles.
By the way, please, please don’t take this advice as something you must implement right now or overnight, because that’s also a surefire way to burn out. No, these are just meant to be examples of what the best Spanish speaking version of you will look like at the end of just five months, if you are willing to work daily on these baby steps.
My job as a teacher is to help you make appropriate progress along the way while presenting you with suitable input according to your level. Meanwhile, you must stay very motivated. That is in fact the most precious asset in order to achieve your goal.
Element #3: You must commit to working on any or all four of the main areas of language acquisition (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) on a daily basis. This works best with a teacher/mentor who will help you to measure your progress and who will keep you accountable. That way, you can reach milestones based on your specific needs and meet your ultimate goals within a short amount of time.
Should you choose a teacher or mentor to guide you in your language acquisition endeavor, here are at least three qualities every great mentor should have:
- Your mentor is actually capable of preparing you with solid building blocks to start speaking and practicing Spanish from day one.
- If you are a beginner, your mentor must figure out how to effectively help you achieve long-term vocabulary retention in a foreign language, especially given the rather short deadline you have. This is usually something that only teachers who speak at least two foreign languages are good at. Many language professors don’t actually teach effective memory retention techniques. Most of the time, they only present you with tons and tons of new words.
- If you are going to learn with a teacher who refuses to teach you or speak to you in any language other than Spanish (the full-immersion method), then I warn you that in order to achieve rapid language acquisition within your short deadline, your teacher must at least meet these five qualities:
- Helps you understand what you are hearing.
- Understands what you are saying.
- Confirms your understanding by using the correct language.
- Does not focus on correcting your mistakes (at least not in the early stages).
- Instead of focusing on presenting you with a lot of vocabulary and grammar, your teacher works on helping you to make progress and measure your results. It’s about measuring every area of language acquisition and not just accumulating knowledge. The teacher must not overwhelm you with grammar or too many boring words to memorize (words that you probably won’t remember in two days anyway), especially if you are only going to have one session per week.
Element #4: If you want a solid foundation to grow your Spanish vocabulary in the long-term and to be able to begin speaking from day one (without burning out or torturing yourself), here are some suggestions I give my students:
- Practice speaking Spanish from day one using small conversations you are highly likely to encounter anywhere you go (where Spanish speakers are to be found of course).
- Discover your strengths, weaknesses, and learning style. As a teacher, it is my duty to identify what your strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to language acquisition. However, what’s most important is finding out how you can effectively learn to work on what you are struggling with the most, whether it’s pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, or memory.
Then, you need to establish a mini-mission for yourself in order to achieve accurate results. Otherwise, if you rush forward while ignoring your weak areas, you will almost always struggle with understanding new conversations, and your frustration will only grow.
Element #5: Vocabulary customization. If you ever struggle with memory and retaining new vocabulary, it’s not your fault. Perhaps it’s because the method is too boring. In fact, everyone has trouble when memorizing boring things. My method to keep things interesting and guarantee that you will improve your memory and ability to learn new words in the long-term is this:
- Build emotional connections with new words, so that they are actually relevant to you. Therefore, you learn them for good without torturing yourself. For example, instead of the typical beginner’s lesson of “learn the days of the week in Spanish,” start learning full phrases that actually have meaning in your life, like “my wedding is on Saturday” (if you are engaged) or “I love parties on the weekends.” Then the new vocabulary will stick long-term. This is because the meaning is highly relevant to your life, and you build a connection to the real-life applications of what you have learned.
- Learn how to hear new sounds. Listening is an absolutely critical step that you mustn’t skip if you want pass as a native. Google Translate offers this.
- Spanish spelling is quite straightforward. So, if you learn how to pronounce new words and spell them, you are going to really speed up your progress. You will have built a solid foundation in order to start reading, consuming more content, practicing and learning more Spanish on your own.
Those three steps are actually where the rubber meets the road and where we must keep pushing until we get these hassles out of the way. The reason I specifically focus on these is that once you master new sounds with accurate pronunciation and spelling, you can essentially move on and learn more Spanish more quickly because you’ve built such a solid foundation.
If starting with those three steps mentioned above is not compelling enough, here are four main benefits:
- You will vastly improve your vocabulary retention without boring, traditional, and meaningless flashcards. There is nothing wrong with flashcards per se, but they should never be boring and without any personal connection.
- Your listening comprehension will also vastly improve. You will be able to understand more advanced conversations much more quickly.
- Native speakers will speak to you! You will be thrilled to see that even in places like Miami or NYC, Spanish speakers will give you a chance! Disclaimer: there will always be some people who want to practice their English.
- No bad habits to unlearn. This is awesome, especially when you hear people complimenting your native-like speaking.
Element #6: Last but not least, you need to focus on comprehensive input (especially with your teacher) and start working on the basic building blocks to achieve fluency. For example, if you learn just ten nouns, ten adjectives, and ten verbs, then you have a combination of almost a thousand sentences you can practice!
To recap, if you want to achieve fluency and be able to hold advanced conversations, this is where you should start:
You must stop thinking in English (translating certain words is fine). However, if you definitely want to reach a high conversational level and get yourself up to native-like fluency, then you must start thinking only in Spanish. You will find that it’s almost like you’re becoming another person or, to put it more accurately, becoming another version of yourself that you didn’t know existed before. Basically, when learning from scratch, it’s about daring to speak all the time while making mistakes.
Every Spanish teacher’s challenge is to keep the Spanish input highly relevant and appropriate to your level, while also slowly moving you up the ladder. Many courses, textbooks, apps, and programs make the mistake of teaching you too much too fast, or they simply do not have enough input and it only reverses your learning.
If you focus on familiar topics and environments, then I can guarantee that you will go very far and have many conversations that you will be proud of (as long as you put in the work)!
Hero Image by Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)